Wordy? A little. But this British home-front spy mystery from 1941 is also fine entertainment, reasonably exciting and features two first-rate performances by Alastair Sim as the suspicious Charles Dimble and 16-year-old George Cole as the 15-year-old London kid, Ronald, resourceful and energetic. Ronald thinks Sherlock Holmes is "the greatest man whatever lived" and is pretty good at deducing things. Bear in mind that Sim and his wife took Cole into their household when he was a boy and became Cole's foster parents. Sim saw to Cole's education. When Cole wanted to become an actor like Sim, Sim also saw to Cole's training. They appeared together in more than a dozen movies, not as a team but as two skilled comic actors.
John Barrington (Leslie Banks) is a brilliant, eccentric British inventor. He works at his grand manor house in Scotland and has almost developed a revolutionary bomb sight. The Nazis want his secrets, preferably with Barrington as well. Barrington has a flighty, well-meaning wife (at one point she kindly tells Ronald, who has nearly destroyed a suit of armor, "Never mind, never mind. Just forget what a nuisance you are.") and a good-looking daughter. He also has an assistant who longs for the daughter. Suddenly the cottage on their grounds, which had been up for rent, is taken over as a military hospital. In it goes Flight Lieutenant Perry (John Mills), a Spitfire pilot who had to bail out and landed in a nearby loch with a bad arm. Then there's Dimble, who says he had arranged to rent the cottage and now has nowhere to stay. He's put up in a room next to Perry. There's young, confident Ronald, sent up from London because of the blitz and lodged in the manor house. There's the butler, a bull-necked, taciturn man who was recently hired and a housekeeper who leaves with little notice. And before long we see Dimble has a revolver, Perry makes odd phone calls, Barrington seems over-confident, his assistant seems unduly interested in the bombsight and we learn Scotland Yard and MI-something have each sent a man up there. They have learned a Nazi spy ring has targeted Barrington and now has an agent in place. But who are the spies and who are Barrington's protectors? Well, one of the Nazi agents is not hard to figure out and one of the protectors is. The fun is in seeing how the game is played.
Cottage to Let has serious themes and clever characterizations. Barrington's well-bred wife comes from the Billie Burke school of thespianism, well-meaning and ditzy. Addressing the townsfolk who have come to the manor for the annual pageant, she quotes Churchill in honoring all the volunteers, "Never," she says, "has so much owed so many to so little." There's snappy dialogue, plenty of skullduggery, a shoot-up escape and death by rolling millstone. It's always fun to listen to the careful, well-bred diction of the upper-class coming from actors of assorted backgrounds who had to learn how to speak "properly" if they were to get leading roles. So many "girls" to be turned into "gels," so many a "here" and a "dear" to be turned into a nasal "heah" and a nasal "deah." The main actors all do fine jobs, but once again it's Alastair Sim who captures the movie. He was a superb actor with a unique style, and he is just about impossible not to watch. With Cottage to Let, however, his foster son, George Cole, just about gives him a run for his money. Cole turns in a supremely assured job as the supremely assured Ronald, no one's fool yet still a very likable young man.
The DVD transfer is in much better shape than we might have expected for a movie more than 55 years old. The main reason, however, for getting this Network DVD is the extra, a 1975 television drama, "The Prodigal Daughter." Sim was 75 when he starred in it, sharing top billing with Jeremy Brett. It's the story of three Catholic priests and what happens when a young housekeeper is hired for them. Sim is the older parish priest, a man who is wise in the ways of the world and cooks terribly. Brett is a younger priest who undergoes a crises of his calling. It's a solid, hour-long teleplay. Once more Sim is the man you wind up watching despite a fine performance by Brett. The transfer of The Prodigal Daughter is crisp and clean, with fine color.